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Religion was not born of fear

“Men fear death as children fear to go in the dark; and as that natural fear in children is increased with tales, so is the other.”
– Francis Bacon, Of Death

We often hear that religion was born of fear, that primitive peoples needed something to comfort them. Personally, I doubt it. Fear may be one of the things keeping religion alive (I think Sir Francis had it right), but what evidence do we have for the assumption that fear bred it?

Defining religion may seem fairly easy when surrounded by cathedrals, monasteries, and televangelists, but how would we categorize the rituals known to have been practiced by Neandertals and possibly even pre-human cultures? Ideas do not fossilize and abstract concepts can only be dated with certainty to the first written accounts—anything before then is (hopefully) educated guesswork.

So let’s start guessing.

In the distant world of our more hirsute ancestors, fear would have been a constant companion. Danger lurked in caves and behind bushes, and even escaping the clutches of a predator would leave one with injuries that probably meant death. Fear was both an ally and an enemy in the fight for survival—a healthy emotion that kept some alive while it made others the main course down at the waterhole. Fear caused them to fight or run, and as consciousness and communication evolved and reinforced each other the lesson would be ‘taught’ to those who were a little slower at those instinctive reactions. Prayer would be an alien concept; religion is learned, and the level of thought required would have been a luxury in a time when almost every waking minute was devoted to feeding or breeding or some other aspect of immediate survival. But it did develop.

We don’t know the exact moment when our line attained the level of intelligence we have today and it’s entirely conceivable that some of our extinct relatives may have even eclipsed us in that regard. What we can say is that we haven’t gotten any more intelligent in eons; the brain that guided the hand wielding the stone-scraper was just as capable of thought as the one maneuvering today’s scalpel. What it lacked was the equivalent collective knowledge of the society around it. The only accessible library was the minds of cave-mates, and the only way to pass knowledge along was to show/tell someone and then hope they didn’t get eaten/stomped.

Sooner or later they probably got to thinking that life might be easier if they could make some sort of sense of the world around them. There were obvious observable cycles such as that big bright hot thing that whipped across the sky, the cooler one that chose a different schedule, animals and plants that appeared and disappeared regularly, and maybe a nearby river that got wider and higher at regular intervals. Other patterns were also noted, like those they could make in the sand or the shape of spearheads painstakingly crafted into just the right size and shape. As these things were designed, a possible explanation for the ways of the world presented itself. Paley’s watchmaker was making himself evident even before sundials were invented. Designs spoke of a designer. Sadly, modern creationists haven’t progressed much beyond that stage, but this would easily have been observed by ancient man.

The designs our ancestors saw were big—much bigger than anything they could construct. Whatever made them must have been big and/or powerful. The designer also made living things and so must have had power over life, and possibly death too. The other living things they saw were often those they ate, provided by the creators; this was something to be thankful for.

But fear? I doubt it. In my admittedly limited experience, animistic religions—perhaps the closest to the early manifestations of the phenomenon—accept their surroundings, respecting the life around them and understanding that every so often the dinner tables will be turned. Religion was the first attempt to understand the world and try to make some sense of it. Early science was used to improve spears and other implements; early religion was used to explain what was happening.

Rather than being a product of fear, I see it as showing the strength of those early minds. They tried their best to make sense of the world, which shows they realized that they needed to learn and plan for the future. Their minds were as strong as their physiques, and our continued existence is testimony to the value of reason, however little information one has.

“Perchance you who pronounce my sentence are in greater fear than I who receive it.” – Giordano Bruno, quoted by Gaspar Schopp of Breslau in a letter to Conrad Rittershausen written on the day of Bruno’s burning at the stake for (among other things) the crime of being an “atheist.”

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